Okay, so this is a looong overdue post. But I really wanted to share the significant things I’ve seen and heard throughout my recent travel experience to China. Consider this as your unofficial, unfiltered guide to the major destinations of the Shanxi province and Inner Mongolia. Believe it or not, this is the first time I stepped foot on the mainland. At least, I consider it to be so1. It’s part of the reason why the adventure’s been quite meaningful to me, as I’ve finally seen where and how my cultural ancestors are like with my own eyes.
WARNING: Super looooooooong post with LOADS of pictures.
First off, really really sorry for the zero updates in the past few days! It’s been taking longer than I expected just to craft this post -_- So I’ve decided to break it down into 2 parts: This one the first, and the next one will cover the 2 nights I spent in Singapore. Despite the hundreds of pictures to choose from, not a single fiber of me regret that I’ve taken too many pictures, because this :)
It was an 11-day trip with the Chan Brothers of Singapore. Incidentally, this is the first time the tour operator runs this trip. Let’s face it – it’s not a popular destination in China if you compare this to Zhangjiajie or Jiuzhaigou. They wanted to see if this package will run well, because if it does, they’ll have it to your avail for future seasons.
Anyway, I was with my mother and a couple of relatives on the tour, along with over 20 other people on board. The trip began on July 11 and ended just a few days before the start of Eid Mubarak. So when people asked me where I’ll be during the holidays and I said ‘Mongolia’, they usually reply with a “What’s in Mongolia?” (Emang di Mongol ada apa?) or “What for?!” (Ngapain?!).
It’s the same reaction I get when I traveled to another unforgettable journey to India and Jammu and Kashmir in 2009, as well as to Eastern Europe in 2004. I know these are relatively uncommon tourist destinations, but I come from a family of wanderlust. I grew up with the care of house helpers while my parents went on traveling the world, so for the most part, my mom has been to popular places that I’ve always wanted to go 3-4 times while I was in school, and now she just wants “weird” places she hasn’t been. Think Antarctica, or the Baltic region (she was just there last summer), or the Middle Eastern countries that end with -stan (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, etc). Now she’s eyeing for the cities in China that crosses path with the Silk Road, and I’m still very much a virgin traveler.
So that’s roughly why I vacationed to this uncommon region of China for my holidays2. Now that we’re done with that, let’s jump right in on the trip.
Quick guide: Major cities
Taiyuan, Shanxi (太原, 山西)
- Capital city of the province
- Pretty much surrounded by mountains
- Prominent in China’s coal and mining industry
- They eat everything with vinegar
- They also take pride in their homespun noodles
Datong, Shanxi (大同, 山西)
- Dubbed as China’s “coal city”
- In fact, the whole Shanxi province is into mining due to their abundant natural resource
- North China’s economic, political, and military center in the ancient times
- Houses many historical and cultural relics
- Then prosperous, still prosperous. Always in construction
Hohhot, Inner Mongolia (呼和浩特, 内蒙)
- Capital city of Inner Mongolia
- Home of diverse ethnic groups, including the Han, the Manchu, the Hui, the Tibetan, the Dawur, the Miao, the Ewenke, the Korean, and the Elunchun)
- Surprisingly big Muslim population (mainly it’s the Huis). You can spot dozens of mosques in the downtown area
- Locals are strong-built; eats meat and dairy products; drinks mainly alcohol
Baotou, Inner Mongolia (包头, 内蒙)
- Dubbed as “deer city” because there are many deers
- Industrious; economic center of Inner Mongolia
- Largest city too
- Where Shanxi is rich in coal, Inner Mongolia, particularly in Baotou, is super duper rich in rare earth metals
- Plenty of greens for you nature lovers (nationally awarded with titles like the ‘Garden City’)
Ordos, Inner Mongolia (鄂尔多, 内蒙)
- Lies within the Ordos Loop
- Dubbed as “ghost city”345
- Like Datong, Ordos is also abundant in coal reserves
- Host of the 2012 Miss World Final
Points of interest, but mainly pictures
The Chang Family Compound (常家庄园)
On our way to Pingyao (平遥县), we made a pit stop at a famous manor in the Yuci district (榆次区). To put it simply, it’s the home of filthy-rich guys, and you can see how filthy rich they were back in the days of the Ming and Qing dynasties just by looking around the compound.
The 60-hectare manor used to be the private residence of the Chang family, and it was the largest one (among those of the wealthy merchants of Shanxi) during its time. The family was well-known for its confucian businessmen culture, comprising of members who eventually became flourishing intellectuals, scholars, writers, painters, and calligraphers. Added to that, they did a lot of tea trading with Russia and grew filthy-rich during the mid-Qing dynasty. From then on, each generation has been passing along the prosper for over 150 years.
For more, read this excellent guide put together by the People’s Daily Online.
I still find it hard to believe how grand the whole lot was. How can one family keep up with everything (guest activities, classes and lectures, business meetings, etc) that’s going on in this home? The Kardashians are way behind.
The Ancient City of Pingyao (平遥)
This is one small 2.6-square kilometers city that’s garnerned huge preservation efforts due to its rich cultural value. Pingyao’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an entirely walled city that was kept to exemplify the prosperous past of imperial China during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Today, it allows no big cars and buses into it, so we got around with golf carts, and it kind of felt as if I’m on a movie set or something. I shot a quick video below, so take a look around.
Rishengchang exchange house (日升昌票号)
The first bank in all of China’s history is here in Pingyao, and I sat on an ingot-shaped rock as if I’m peeing on it.
Harmony guesthouse (和義昌)
This is one really neat place to stay. Long alleys, traditional courtyards, antique furnitures, Chinese kang beds, good WiFi, strategic location and good value – basically the whole package.
Wutaishan National Park (平遥县)
Mount Wutai features five open, flat, tree-less peaks (one of which is the highest point in northern China) that makes it an ideal location for founding sacred sites. These temples and monasteries are some of the most popular destinations of ancient Buddhists and pilgrims, making the region one of the big 4 sacred Buddhist mountains of China6. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nanshan Temple (南山寺)
The 7-terrace temple was first built during the Yuan Dynasty, and it’s so large it’s divided into 3 parts, with the lower terraces named the Jile Temple (极乐寺), its middle ones the Shande Hall (善德堂), and the upper 3 terraces dubbed as the Youguo Temple (佑国寺).
For the older folks, climbing this temple is no small feat. I highly suggest going it with a local van ride or a horse carriage that are available nearby. For those of you going up by foot, going downhill was actually more difficult, because if you’re not careful, it’s pretty easy to slip against the wide and smooth rocks.
Pusading Temple (菩薩頂)
The way down from Pusading Temple has exactly 108 steps to represent the 108 earthly desires that causes suffering, according to Buddhist teachings. If you’re curious like I am, these are the 108 “defilements”, according to VirtueScience:
Shuxiang Temple (殊像寺) and Wuye Temple (五爷庙)
The Hanging Monastery (悬空寺)
Before going on this trip, I never knew the existence of this cliff-hanging temple. It certainly bespeaks the ancient Chinese people’s architectural marvel (was built some time around the Northern Wei Dynasty), and it was said that the whole thing was constructed by only one man. Added to that, the temple’s also roosted on the ridges of one of the 5 Sacred Mountains of China (五岳), the northern Mount Heng of Shanxi (恆山).
What’s unique about this temple (aside from its architecture) is that it is the only existing one in the world that is dedicated to 3 religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Now get this: Even after visiting the beautiful Xuankong Temple, I still want to visit Bhutan to see the Tiger’s Nest some day.
Tomb of Wang Zhaojun (王昭君)
Perhaps those of you who play the Three Kingdoms games series have known about this, but before this trip, I never knew the existence of the legendary Four Beauties of ancient China (四大美女)7 So here we are at the 13,000-square kilometer cemetery dedicated to Wang Zhaojun, although she’s not actually buried there (nobody knows where she’s buried) and the whole area is purported more as a memorial. The tomb was literally put on a 33-meter high pedestal as an honorary (in the form of a mound), because she’s sacrificed herself and brought the skirmishes between the nomadic tribes up north and the Han dynasty to an end with her marriage. To read more on her story, read this article, courtesy of the Western Kentucky University.
Ordos Desert (鄂尔多斯沙漠)
This is one big-ass desert that covers 2 smaller-ass deserts: The Kubuqi Desert (库其沙漠), also the 7th largest desert in China, and the Maowusu Desert (毛乌素沙漠), which happens to be the 8th. For the most part, we spent our hours under the scorching sun at the highlight and the center of the Kubuqi Desert – the Resonant Sand Gorge (响沙湾), which is only 45 kilometers away from Baotou.
It’s quickly becoming the most visited desert resorts in China because it’s the nearest one from Beijing and also because of this Lotus Hotel. Before it was this crowded, you can still hear the the dunes making sounds of airplanes and other automobile engines. They can also whisper and shush you as you’re taking your steps. For more, see Wiki on the phenomenon.
Xilamuren Grasslands (希拉穆仁草原)
Seasoned travelers usually think of the grasslands just by the very mention of Inner Mongolia, and it comes as no surprise – the grassland lifestyle is the very fabric of its history, and it all ties back to the days Genghis Khan reigned.
Being the nearest one from Hohhot8, the Xilamuren (“yellow water” in Mongolian) grassland area is the first grassland that was opened and developed for tourists. So don’t be surprised to see yurts that are not exactly like the traditional ones you imagine, although this doesn’t affect your ventures to experience the nomadic Mongol herdsmen’s lifestyle, who are very passionate in what they do (raise goats, cows, camels, horses, and sheep).
Traditional yurts are mostly stitched of things such as compressed sheep wool and latticed wood frames, and they were designed to be folded up and carried by camels for long distance travels. However, our “resort”, if you will, welcomed us with yurts specially built of concrete yards, and your hot water and electricity run on solar power. So don’t be surprised if you see clear skies and bright stars in the dark night after having a super cold shower.
For the most part of the afternoon, it’s one gigantic scenery for you to bask in. The sparse greens and undulating grounds stretches around 1,000 square kilometers, and it feels as though they reach out on every corner far into the horizon. It’s easy to wander around the grasslands and get lost, so make sure you stay close to your traveling group.
Just FYI, the 3 “manly” sports for these ethnic Mongols are horse racing, wrestling, and archery – all of which the locals performed for us as entertainment. They also gave us tremendous baijiu, or simply clear alcohol, as away to give thanks and make us feel welcomed.
My favorite part is the horse-riding part – because there’s nowhere else in the world (at least, that’s what my mom said) where you can ride a horse for this long (we rode for more than an hour) without stop. Moreover, the horses were roaming free, literally running and hopping as they wish9.
At one point, I was the slowest among the group because I stopped among the grasses to pee10. It didn’t help when my horse kept stopping after every few strides to munch on shrubs, until the guide slowed down and rode back to me so my horse would catch up with the crowd that was already miles ahead. The horse was startled by the sight of the guide, who was approaching him quickly, and so it hastened up and eventually kept on dashing and galloping forward … until he became the lead of the race.
I wouldn’t trade anything else for the rush of the winds. Running on my feet has been more than enough to feel as if I’m flying, but riding a racing stallion makes you feel like a soaring eagle11.
Yungang Grottoes (云冈石窟)
Another architectural awesomeness, just 16 kilometers away from Datong. It’s just unbelievable how much tenacity the ancient Chinese must have taken to carve these rocks into such detailed niches, embosses, panels, sculptures and even entire caverns. The western parts of the grottoes, which are mostly caves, all prohibit photographs, so I regretfully say I have nothing to show how incredible the these rock-cut structures are. There is one cave that struck me hard because the entire cave depicts the story of Buddha in possibly the earliest forms of comic book storytelling, but told in the form of rocks. I never knew the full and complete story of Buddha until the day I visited this cave.
With all the spectacularity, it’s no surprise that the grottoes are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site:
The Yungang Grottoes, in Datong city, Shanxi Province, with their 252 caves and 51,000 statues, represent the outstanding achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Five Caves created by Tan Yao, with their strict unity of layout and design, constitute a classical masterpiece of the first peak of Chinese Buddhist art.
Yingxian Wooden Pagoda / The Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple (佛宫寺释迦塔)
Can you believe the entire 67.31-meter high pagoda was made out of timber? It’s also recently placed on the tentative list as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for plenty other reasons, including it being the first pagoda in the world (it’s built in 1056) and the tallest among the world’s ancient wooden buildings. Located 70 kilometers south of Datong, the rustic pagoda looks as if there are 5 levels from the outside, but there are actually 9 inside. It’s too bad we didn’t get to go inside as it’s not included in the tour package.
The Coal Museum of China (中国煤炭博物馆)
Well, exploring this museum is like going back to school all over again, which, for me, is quite boring :p Besides, Indonesia also takes pride in our abundance in coal reserves. But hey, in this museum, you get to learn that coal has extended far beyond its use as energy fuel. As a matter of fact, the raw material has been liquefied, gasified, and processed in so many different ways to produce chemicals and substances that make up practically all the everyday products we use today. Toys, boots, kitchenware, drugs, cosmetics – seriously, everything. It’s harmful, actually, if you’re not using and/or disposing coal in a mindful manner …
Jinci Temple (晋祠寺)
Just 25 kilometers away from downtown Taiyuan, this temple complex began with the Saintly Mother’s Hall during the Song Dynasty (also the most famous structure of all), and continued to expand throughout the succeeding dynasties to come. The grounds were full of varied relics and structures that represent the respective dynasties they were built in, all against the backdrop of a beautiful landscape setting. There were ponds, pavilions, bridges and cabinets just all around the grounds, including a sturdy and well-preserved 3,000-year-old cypress. It kind of looks like the leaning tower of Pisa today.
Donghu Vinegar Garden (太原东湖醋园)
This is a themed museum put together by a major aged-vinegar manufacturer in the region, Shanxi Mature Vinegar Group Co. Ltd. They basically took us on a tour around how the workers brew their vintage concoctions, which is made up of water, sorghum, barley, and peas. There are various workers who’ve worked there for years that’s lived past their 80s and 90s, showing us that regular intake and exposure of vinegars (including their smell) delays senescence and overall increases vitality, which is way beyond the healthful effects of regular vinegar we’re used to being informed. This is because it has plenty of amino acids than conventional vinegars, and it’s super alkalizing. So I was easily piqued, and yeap, I became a regular consumer since then.
What I love most about this trip is that I get to visit 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites in less than 2 weeks. Technically, I can count it as 4 (Yingxian Wooden Pagoda is tentative!), but yeah, this is 2 weeks of my life I’ll never get back, and I’m confident I’ve spent it well.
I was also amazed by just how tenacious the ancient Chinese were with their craft – they’ve built things that far outlasted them. They’re remarkable, almost implausibly, and altogether inspiring. Kind of makes me proud now that they’ve passed down the bloodline :p
On the flip side, I didn’t really enjoy the food provided throughout the trip … they’re either too oily, too salty, or completely tasteless. Maybe I haven’t tried the best of Chinese food, as this is regional China we’re talking, but I’d really prefer dishes with more variety in taste and spice. I highly suspect I was an Indian in my past life. Just a theory.
90% of the 25 people traveling with me are well over their 40s and 50s. It’s not a surprise, because they said they asked their younger relatives whether they wanted to come along, and they said no because these are “boring” places, if you will, the kind that elderlies would prefer to go next to, say, Hong Kong or Shanghai.
Well, I have no regrets. Even though I must say there are plenty of blah moments I find on the road, I’m glad I tagged along with my mom. As a matter of fact, if you plan on traveling the whole world in your lifetime, I think it’s good to leave your footprints on these relatively undiscovered places early on, because while we’re young and still in good shape, we’ll find less trouble climbing hills and trees and rocks. Other than your vigor, it’s great to travel adventurously right now simply because you’ll never be young twice. This moment is really all you have, so might as well take advantage of it :)
If you’re still with me at this point, then THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! I really appreciate you taking your time reading everything in full, as I hope you finish the end of the post feeling inspired to get out there and wander. Also I want to applaud your incredible attention span :p
Coming up next is my 2-night stay in Singapore that I was really happy about and made me miss living in the lion city a lot. See you again soon!
- Been to Hong Kong when I was very little, but I’ve forgotten 70% of the trip! [↩]
- By the way, the UNWTO recently released its 2014 report and enlisted China as #4 on its Top Tourism Destinations after France, the United States, and Spain. See the full report here. [↩]
- [BBC] [↩]
- [TIME] [↩]
- [The Bohemian Blog] [↩]
- 1. Wutaishan, Shanxi, 2. Emeishan, Sichuan, 3. Jiuhuashan, Anhui, and 4. Putuoshan, Zhejiang. [↩]
- 1. Xi Shi [西施沉魚 / so beautiful that when she walks by, a fish would forget how to swim and sink into the deep], 2. Wang Zhaojun [昭君落雁 / so beautiful that flying birds would fall from the sky], 3. Diaochan [貂嬋閉月 / so beautiful that the beautiful face of the moon shies away because it cannot compare], and 4. Yang Guifei [貴妃羞花 / so beautiful that the beauty of flowers doesn’t compare either and put to shame]. Seriously, the Chinese are masters of exaggeration. [↩]
- About 90 kilometers away up north, taking about 2 hours on a bus ride. [↩]
- For this reason, people of ages 50 and above weren’t allowed to horse-ride. They rode on horse carriages instead. [↩]
- I asked the locals where the toilet was, and they told me to pee among the grasses. So I did. [↩]
- And yes, you guessed it right: I was born in the year of the horse. [↩]